Opinion: Court gets it right in striking down Iowa ag-gag law

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Right this very minute at some farming operation in Iowa animal activists may legally be running an undercover sting operation to reveal inhuman treatment of animals.

Right now.

That's because last month the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, and senior Judge James Gritzner, threw out a 2012 Iowa law that made it a crime for people to gain access to agricultural facilities by “false pretense.” 

The law criminalized undercover operations by activists and oh yeah journalists.  And from Big Ag's standpoint it was oh so successful.  Since 2012 if the Animal Legal Defense Fund is to be believed there were exactly zero undercover investigations against animal operations – livestock and puppy mills more specifically.

But Gritzner ruled that false speech under the Iowa statute is protected under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Reynolds Gritzner writes:

“If the state is going to restrict protected speech, the restriction must be “actually necessary” to achieve the state's compelling interest...A prohibition is actually necessary if there is a “direct casual link between the restriction imposed and the injury to be prevented.  Defendants have produced no evidence that the prohibitions of (the statute) are actually necessary to protect perceived harms to property and biosecurity.”

Gritzner bluntly and with no wiggle room writes the First Amendment protects false statements “whether they be investigative deceptions or innocuous lies.”

Needless to say Big Ag in general and the Iowa pork industry in particular is freaking out.  The Iowa Pork Producers Association attempted to put a happy spin on the defeat while suggesting the case may move up the court judicial ladder for review.

The IPPA wrote “We were relying on the courts to help us protect our rights to lawfully conduct our businesses and care for our animals...it was never the intent of farmers to infringe on others' constitutional rights.”

Wrong IPPA.  Let's call this exactly what it is. 

Big Ag has a long and cozy relationship with Iowa lawmakers who were more than willing to make “production facility fraud” illegal in order to cover up Big Ag sins. 

Stuff like burning the beaks off hens without painkillers at Iowa's Sparboe Farms or smashing pigs against production floors at Iowa Select Farms.

Well.  Kudos to Gritzner for seeing the truth and ruling that lawmakers cannot hand out sweetheart statutes to their special interest groups while trampling over constitutional rights.

Of course Big Ag won't let this stand without a fight.  I'm sure IPPA lobbyists and their ilk are huddling with friendly Iowa state lawmakers to write a law that address conduct rather than speech.

And what about a federal statute prohibiting undercover investigations under false pretenses you might wonder.

Likely it would be a difficult uphill slough.  The courts have already struck down similar ag-gag laws in multiple states as unconstitutional.

In the meantime Big Ag you are on notice.  Abuse animals at your legal peril.

About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.